Organizers behind a proposed fine arts charter school in Columbia County, said they are optimistic state officials will approve their plan to open a school in 2015 – a plan that was unanimously rejected by Board of Education members this past week.
Todd Shafer, one of the founding board members for the proposed Columbia County School for the Arts, said the entire board will travel to Atlanta on Tuesday to present their application to the Charter Schools Commission of Georgia.
“We are very confident that we will be successful with the state charter commission,” Shafer said. “Once they make their decision in mid-September, we will enter into an agreement with the state charter commission and function as a state-authorized charter school.”
The group submitted applications simultaneously in May to both Columbia County and the state. The Columbia County School for the Arts, which would be open to all Columbia County residents, would infuse fine arts and foreign language throughout the academic curriculum. Although proposed as a K-12 school, Shafer said the plan is to open in 2015 with kindergarten through eighth grade and add a grade each year afterward.
Although they can’t take any official actions until the charter is approved, Shafer said the group has been investigating possible locations for the proposed school.
“We are working closely with a real estate broker and we have identified several locations,” he said.
School board Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco said board members didn’t reject the charter school application lightly. She said they relied on recommendations made by a committee appointed to study the plan and compare it to current educational opportunities available to Columbia county students.
“I wasn’t just going to willy-nilly say we don’t want a charter school,” she said. “Our system is already doing above and beyond what they are asking to do.”
The committee, composed of school Superintendent Dr. Sandra Carraway, nine members of the administrative staff and two school attorneys, provided board members with a 37-page draft report that found fault with the charter plan in six general areas, including lack of organizational innovation, failure to meet the needs of the community, lack of rigor and insufficient increase in student achievement and a lack of fiscal soundness.
Buccafusco said it wouldn’t be in the board’s best interest to support a school that would have instructional standards below what is already being provided by the school system. She also expressed doubt about how the new school could put together enough funding or attract enough students to be fiscally viable.
“For me that was an easy vote,” she said “I’m really proud of what our system does now.”
Shafer said is approved, their plan calls for a combination of state funding and other sources, such as federal and state grants to meet the school’s needs.
We have no concerns about receiving the funding that we will require to operate the school,” he said.
Shafer said he felt like there was little interest on the county board’s part to communicate with the charter school board, but he wasn’t surprised by their decision.
“Obviously we are disappointed that the school board chose not to partner with us in our endeavor,” he said. “I’m also disappointed that they did not contact us to address their concerns.”
Shafer wasn’t at the Tuesday night meeting because he was out of town. However, he said he and the other charter school board members were under the impression that no formal action was planned.
The only charter school board member to attend was Dr. Linda Scales, who said she didn’t request to speak because she thought school board members were only going to receive a report.
“We had made an inquiry,” she said. “We were unaware that they were going to take a vote.”
Scales, who is a founding member of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, said the county school board didn’t hear both sides of the issues before making a decision.
“We as a group did not have the opportunity to address the statements that the report made,” Scales said.
She said one of the main conclusions in the report was that the school was not offering anything that the school system doesn’t already have.
“Columbia County does not offer an arts-infused program,” she said, explaining that the school’s curriculum was modeled after Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School in Augusta. “Davidson is the second best school in the state and it is art-infused.”
According to the application, the school’s academic standards will be infused with music, dance, visual arts and drama to “emphasize critical thinking and higher-order thinking skills,”
Scales said she has seen the value of arts education with her experience at the Jessye Norman school. Children exposed to the fine arts are more successful in all areas of academic achievement, she said.
“In every category the Jessye Norman kids are ahead,” she said. “I think the petition is viable and I think it will demonstrate that this is a strong program.”
Carraway said the committee’s review of the application was thorough and the charter school group did an excellent job preparing its application.
“In reality the (charter school) petition tells their story. It really didn’t leave us with any questions,” Carraway said. “They did an excellent job in presenting the petition.”
The committee’s examination of the petition, however, exposed weaknesses in the plan, that led to the school board’s rejection.
Carraway said that she and board members have received little feedback from the public or calls of support for the proposed school.
“Only one board member reported hearing at all from a parent that they wanted the school,” she said.
Charter school organizers say they are confident there are plenty of parents who want this type of education as an alternative to what is already available in county schools, however excellent that may be.
“While I will say that I’m very proud of Columbia County schools. They do a good job,” said Scales. “It is about providing a choice to these children who will do better academically if exposed to this art-infused curriculum.”